George Zimmerman wasn’t born in a vacuum. He lives in a culture that creates and perpetuates a fear of black or Hispanic men. The fact that he saw Trayvon Martin as a threat doesn’t just reveal Zimmerman’s prejudices, but a culture’s biases as well.
It’s become a cliché to admit that everyone’s a little racist. Survey folks with some semblance of self-awareness and a few will admit that when stepping into elevators with a black man, they clutch their purses closer or if they see a group of black kids walking down the street, they’ll scuttle across the street. Cab drivers often will ignore black men.
But it can get more sinister: when convicted murderer Susan Smith concocted a tale of her kids being kidnapped, she fabricated a mythical black bogeyman. When running for the senate, Sharron Angle’s campaign participated in some really ugly race-baiting by releasing an anti-immigration video that featured menacing, dangerous and predatory people of color who were supposedly intent on victimizing white Americans. And we cannot forget the fear of some voters when Barack Obama was running for president – talks of him being Muslim and a radical activist, with a wife who was “angry.”
Does any of this excuse Martin’s death? Of course not. Even if we are born and raised in this racial hierarchy that creates pseudo-castes, we have enough free will to transcend these attitudes.
Now there’s supposed evidence that Martin wasn’t a model citizen: that he had past offenses. So what? Trayvon Martin doesn’t have to be a paragon of virtue to have the right to walk through the streets wearing a hoodie without worrying about being shot. It doesn’t matter what his past was like – Zimmerman didn’t know Martin. What he saw was a young black man, he didn’t recognize, wandering throughout his neighborhood. He ignored the instructions of the 911 operator and after a violent confrontation Martin was killed.
Zimmerman was the chief culprit in this tragedy. He does, however, have a detached accomplice: a racist culture.